Treacherous Colombia-Panama border crossing shatters many migrant dreams

By Irene Escudero

Capurgana, Colombia, Jun 21 (EFE).- Hell, or so they say, lurks between the pristine beaches and dense rainforest of a region located at the boundary of the North and South American continents.

Straddling the northern part of Colombia’s Choco Department and Panama’s Darien Province, it attract tourists looking for the perfect diving and snorkeling spot but also many migrants in search of a better life.

Like thousands of other people who cross the Darien Gap – a dense natural frontier without walls or concertina wire – en route to Central America and bound potentially for the United States, Juan Carlos wanted a better future for his family, an education for his son and a way of “becoming somebody.”

Achieving that goal meant tackling a forested and mountainous border region that is among the most rugged, remote and dangerous on the face of the planet.

“The riskiest aspect of one of the world’s most unexplored jungles are the people themselves,” not the snakes or other animals, the Venezuelan said.

He departed from Capurgana – a Colombian tourist town on the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Uraba and eastern edge of the Darien Gap – and made his way through the jungle to Panama.

Resting in a half-sleep state and going hungry, he remained constantly alert and carried one of his son’s small shoes as a lucky charm and source of inspiration and motivation.

Juan Carlos traveled in the company of around 70 Haitians, including 10 small children who clung to their mothers while sucking on their pacifiers. “Children don’t choose to migrate, and when you see so many children that’s when you realize the situation in their countries,” he said.

“You see human bones, skulls that had been there for 10 days. Who knows who they were?” the young man said, adding that he saw a young boy die.

After arriving in Panama, he learned that many had endured much worse. He found men who had been raped, women abused, heard of people left to die along the way.

Panamanian authorities say around 17,000 people arrived from Colombia between January and April, a higher number than in previous years. Colombian officials put the number of these migrants at 4,200.

The journey to Capurgana is the easy part. The mostly Haitian migrants arrive via bus from Brazil or Chile and enter Colombia in the city of Ipiales, near the Ecuadorian border.

They traverse the country by highway to the northwestern city of Necocli, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Uraba.

Across the gulf is the Port of Capurgana, a pier just 100 meters in length where small boats are docked and hotels with colorful facades look out onto the water.

Some 200 or 300 migrants arrive every morning and are whisked away by small vehicles into the heart of the Gap, while local residents and tourists turn a blind eye to the daily happenings.

Those embarking on that treacherous journey are frequently victims of robbery, extortion and people trafficking by criminal gangs, said Luis Lanza, coordinator in Panama of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

But the yearning for a better life outweighs the fear.

“A Cuban is never nervous,” a young man yells out during the boat ride to Capurgana. “My fear was staying in Cuba and going hungry.” EFE


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